I’ve been a professional graphic designer for 16 years. I’ve worked on national campaigns to support local products, designed a book about WPA posters, branded arts festivals…but my senior thesis is still the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
My first couple of years at the Corcoran School of Art + Design were spotty. I’d always wanted to be an “artist”, but my parents made me take graphic design because they said I needed to go to school for something I’d actually get paid for. So I wrestled my way through months of plaka and matte board, surrounded by t-squares and buried in color-aid.
As I developed my skill, I began to grow into my skin as a designer. I learned to respect my professors, to listen, to pay attention to my decisions and have a reason for everything. I was exposed to the Stenberg Brothers and Tibor Kalman and taught to utterly worship the art of book design.
For our senior thesis project we each had to choose a current designer, and from that choice our professors would pair us with a past designer. We were to compare their work and find correlations between them, write a thesis paper, design a publication (!!!) around it, and produce a real life, honest-to-god professionally-produced poster. Wow.
It was 1999…Charles S. Anderson was a god, his retro style was like nothing – and everything – I’d ever seen before. Of course I had to pick him.
But I struggled with my assigned designer, A.M. Cassandre. I’d never heard of him, and though I realized reproductions of his Dubonnet posters were in every home decor aisle in the country, how his style compared to Anderson’s was a total mystery. Cassandre’s work was so geometric, vanishing perspectives and extreme angles. Anderson’s work was kitchy…appropriated clip art from a time gone by.
I spent hours around a table with my professors, watching them debate the possibilities. They were so passionate, it was thrilling and exhausting. And as they analyzed both designers’ work, it all started to become clear…each had distinctive styles. Although obvious at first, it was the origin of their styles that was intriguing. Cassandre and Anderson were so influenced by a specific vernacular that they used it in every piece they designed, no matter the content.
Once i could see it, I couldn’t stop. I was in a dizzying spiral of revelations…how cubism and futurism moved Cassandre, how Anderson’s use of stereotypes in iconography might actually be detrimental to a culture. (Why hadn’t I ever noticed all the women were wearing aprons!?)
I confidently formed my own opinion…it was mine. And I was going to design the shit out of it.
Every decision they’d made became a reason for my own design choices. Geometric shapes and file folders, American flags and bar codes…it all had its place. I wanted the viewer to literally see inside each designer’s arsenal and understand, even without reading my blood-sweat-and-tears thesis, what I now understood.
It was amazing to feel so utterly close to something. To be so dedicated that I’d spend endless nights perfecting…refining…activating white space and delicately ragging my way through each paragraph.
My senior thesis taught me to LOVE design. To look at research as fuel, and concept as bond. It taught me that pride comes from dedication. So I still spend endless nights (on other people thesis papers ;)) because I won’t have it any other way. My job is to make sense of things, as a designer I have the responsibility to put everything in wonderful, beautiful order.
So thank you Antonio, and all of my other professors from the late, great Corcoran, for the dark circles under my eyes and my endless drawers full of recyclables.